The cover charge never changed for Woody Allen’s regular gig at Michael’s Pub in Midtown Manhattan, but the director’s day job occasionally called him away from the clarinet chair. Enter Orange Kellin. “The audience would get there and ask, ‘Woody gonna be here?’” recalls Kellin, who occasionally subbed in for the legendary director during the mid-‘80s and ‘90s. “The audience was definitely not pleased. They don’t come to hear jazz; they come to see Woody.” A veteran with impeccable chops and a familiarity with legends, Kellin played on.
Originally from Sweden, Kellin grew up on a continent captivated by jazz. “When I was young, that was the pop music of the day for a certain segment of people,” he says. That segment didn’t include his first music teachers. “I had a lot of teachers who said, ‘Don’t listen to that jazz unless it’s Benny Goodman. It’s going to ruin your brain.’ Even then I knew he was full of shit.” His first encounter with a New Orleans record “was like a bomb went off. It was completely different than anything else I’d heard.”
Since crossing the ocean for good in the 1960s, Kellin has played with everyone from Kid Thomas Valentine to Earl Hines, recorded with pioneers like Jabbo Smith and Louis Barbarin, and served as musical director for the Broadway hit “One Mo’ Time.” A Newport Jazz Festival engagement found him onstage with Louis Armstrong for Pops’ 70th birthday. “I don’t know if he heard a thing I played.”
Today he leads the New Orleans Deluxe Orchestra, a group dedicated to resurrecting both the songs and arrangements of the music’s emergence. Kellin balances his own demands for authenticity with an open approach to improvisation. The band employs arrangements from the period, conjuring the sounds that had an explosive impact on a young Orange, while avoiding the rigidity of his boyhood instructors.
“It’s a fine line,” he says. “I don’t ask people to play a certain way. I ask them to check it out, to get it in their subconscious.”
Orange Kellin plays French Quarter Festival on Sunday, April 15 at 3:45 p.m. on the 700 Bourbon Street Where Y’at Magazine Stage.